Please tell us about yourself
Sweta Vohra is a producer for Al Jazeera America’s current affairs program, Fault Lines. She has won several awards for her recent coverage of Ferguson, including an Emmy nomination. Sweta has covered criminal justice for several years for Fault Lines as well as science and technology stories. Prior to joining Fault Lines, she produced a film on rising Hindu nationalism in India. Sweta also received a degree in RTF (Radio-Television-film) from UT Austin and a master’s in Documentary journalism from UC Berkeley.
Coming out of UT, you participated in the Fulbright Program. Tell me about what you did and how did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?
A friend told me about the opportunity with Fulbright and I got excited thinking about doing something in regard to women’s rights and girls’ education in India. I didn’t know where it would take me, but I knew I wanted to do something with film and documentary and not go straight to an office job. I thought this could be a way to put it together. I didn’t end up doing exactly what I thought I would do, but I ended up working in Bombay (now known as Mumbai) with non-formal education programs, which are non-profits who do education in a different way for street or slum children in Mumbai. It was amazing. I did some short documentaries for them and about them. I really immersed myself in the way life worked in Bombay and in helping to get these kids an education.
Before I entered the program, I spent a summer in New York City right after graduating, completing an internship I got through the International Television and Radio Society. I worked for an independent documentary company. After I came back from the Fulbright program, the producer I worked with there helped set me up with a freelance opportunity that lasted for two years in New York City. A lot of the people I worked with there had journalism backgrounds and that is how I became interested in journalism school. I knew I loved documentaries and UC Berkeley was the only school with a documentary journalism masters, so that is how I ended up there.
What are the main responsibilities of a producer and what is your role in shaping the story?
The producer is the only person on the team who stays with the story from concept to completion. I work with an assistant producer, correspondent and camera person, but they go in and out of the story. When you are given a film, it really becomes the producer’s baby. The producer handles the logistical side of it – travel, interviews, etc. and then editorially they are shaping how the story will be told, what should be said and who is going to say it. We do have a senior producer and an executive producer that oversees the whole show, so I am always getting their insight and making sure they approve of the direction. It is a lot of teamwork. We talk through all elements, both visually and editorially. After production in the field, the producer is the main person writing the script. Then an editor puts it all together.
On average we are working three to four months for a 25-minute piece. Investigative work usually takes longer. We also sometimes do breaking news pieces and you have to turn those around very quickly. In Ferguson we went three days after the story broke and covered the story as it was unfolding. We turned that around in 10 days, which was one of the quicker turnarounds we have done. We have more time to explore context because of the length of our show than some other news outlets, so if we feel like we can bring something to the story that the media isn’t covering, that is when we decide to cover breaking news.
How has your role as producer changed over the past six years you have been at Al Jazeera?
I started as an associate producer, so I was helping other producers, which was very beneficial. I learned how to deal with different situations. I have grown more confident. It is overwhelming when you first start. There is a lot to learn and keep in your head. You also want to make sure you remain true to the story by being accurate. Now I am able to be there for the newer producers to help them since I have been through a lot of different situations.
What kinds of stories are you drawn to and why?
I have been covering policing and criminal justice in the U.S. for several years now. I had already done two films on policing and communities of color before Ferguson broke. Now I am glued to the news around officer- involved shootings in Black communities and am interested to see how this conversation is forming and how we can continue to do stories that hold people in power accountable. That is a big part of our show, asking public officials for their response to what is unfolding on the ground. I am always wondering what other kind of policing stories we can cover.
In what ways has your business degree helped you in your work?
Even when I was at UT, I remember walking into a film production class the week we were covering budgets. No one knew what to do, but I did and wasn’t intimidated by it. To this day, the ways I manage and do teamwork has been shaped by all the cases and teamwork I did in BHP. I learned a lot from that and carried it with me to this day. So much of what we do is managing time, which is something I learned in business school. Because of the time demands from my business classes, I really learned how to manage my time.
When you heard you were nominated for an Emmy for “Outstanding Coverage of a Breaking News Story” for your work as a producer on the segment “Ferguson: City Under Siege,” what was your reaction?
I was overwhelmed and excited. We never even thought about awards. Ferguson was such an important moment in the country and we were there to witness it and show what happened, but also give voice to some of the people out there on the street. We tried to take the story away from people thinking it was just a bunch of looters and bring it back to a real conversation about race. I felt glad to be recognized for what it was and to bring recognition to the network. It is very cool to see your work on the screen and be recognized in front of a bunch of journalists who do the same thing. It was cool for our domestic coverage work to be recognized since we are mostly known for our international work.
For students who may be interested in a career in film production, what steps should they be taking now to prepare themselves and what is the best advice you have for them?
The best thing I did was to take some of the Intro to Media courses you can do without being a major at the Communications School. I realized that I loved it and it gave me energy in a different way than the business school. It covered territory I hadn’t thought about, but that I wanted to. There are student organizations around filming and production. Aside from being a double major, you can take advantage of all the classes in the media world.
What’s next for you? Are there other films you would like to produce?
We might do a labor supply chain story in Northeast India and beyond that, I do want to do a story about cops in schools. I have been looking into the policing in schools for a while and the amount of police brutality in schools that goes unreported.
We’ve recently learned here that Al Jazeera America will be phasing out by the end of April. It’s been incredibly sad to hear this news – this is a team of journalists that have worked hard to put great stories to air. But my particular show, Fault Lines, started on and continues to broadcast on Al Jazeera English, the global channel, and it is likely to continue. This also means we should be back online later this year.